Cat hairballs – how can you help?

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Many cats never experience hairballs so it’s not something that many cat owners are familiar with. But it does affect some cats, so it’s important to understand what your kitty is going through.

It can be distressing watching your cat cough, particularly when it’s clearly uncomfortable. While this might not seem to be a critical issue, it can be indicative of a more serious condition so it’s worth paying attention and if the symptoms persists, take your cat to the vet.

What causes hairballs in cats?

Hairballs are as they sound – balls of hair!

They accumulate in your cat as it grooms itself – cats can’t spit out any hair they get in their mouths while they groom (as their tongues are covered in lots of small barbs).

Most hair passes through your cat’s system without any issue. But in some cases the hair can build up in the cat’s stomach, forming a ball (or cylindrical shape) which is either coughed up by your cat or passes through the other end.

Obviously longer haired cats are more prone to hairballs (they’ve more hair to swallow!), but any cat can be affected. It’s usually more common in older cats rather than kittens – as cats become more adept at grooming as they get older, there’s more chance they’ll swallow hair.

What are the symptoms of hairballs in cats?

The most obvious symptom that your cat has hairballs is it will cough or dry retch. It’s important to check to ensure it has actually vomited up hairballs, because if it hasn’t then, well, there’s a good chance it will be coming out the other end and that’s a somewhat messier situation to resolve.

If your cat is unable to vomit up their hairballs, you may notice they begin to lose their appetite and become lethargic. This is a good sign you should take your cat to the vet as it’s likely that the hairball is causing blockage (which could either be presenting as constipation or diarrhoea symptoms). Hairballs can harden if they are present in your cat’s stomach for too long, and this can be a significant risk to your cat’s health.

It’s also worth noting the difference between your cat coughing or retching, and simply snoring (which isn’t a symptom of hairballs, but could potentially be indicative of another issue).

According to Catster,

There are some simple guidelines for determining whether cat snoring has a medical problem. Light snoring that occurs during sleep, is not linked to respiratory distress, and that is stable in nature (meaning it doesn’t become more pronounced over time) probably isn’t a problem. Cat snoring that becomes progressively louder or is linked to other symptoms such as sneezing, coughing or changes in appetite is probably as sign of illness.

While there are some extreme risk from hairballs, more often than not they pass from your cat (one way or another) without issue. It can be common for cats to get hairballs occasionally, but if it’s an ongoing problem or you become aware of more severe symptoms, then take your cat to the vet.

How can you prevent hairballs in cats?

One of the best methods of preventing hairballs in cats is brushing their coat. The more often you brush their coat, the less loose hairs they will swallow and the less hairballs will form.

The bonus from this is that many cats love being brushed by their human! But, if your kitty is a little bit precious about who is brushing them, then consider taking them to a professional grooming service. If you have a longer haired cat, they can also help by trimming your cat’s hair too.

For cats that are perhaps grooming too much, or if they are experiencing more symptoms of hairballs than normal, you can help things by discouraging them from grooming themselves. Here are some tips on doing that:

By alternating your cat’s routine and behaviour, even slightly, you can reduce the amount of hair they are swallowing.

If those methods don’t help, many cat food manufacturers produce food speciality designed to help with hairballs. The food is high in fibre (which helps hairballs forming in your cat’s stomach and becoming a problem).

Let us know in the comments sections what techniques you use to help your cat with their hairballs.

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